Shoot Down Over Cuba

A bold documentary takes Castro to task for senseless murders.

In June 2000, this magazine published an essay by Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley on Hollywood’s “missing movies.” These were not films that had been neglected by inattentive archivists. They were those tales of injustice that Hollywood had little interest in producing. Long under the spell of radical writers such as Dalton Trumbo and Clifford Odets, Hollywood was “a town that welcomed Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista junta but never took up the cause of a single Soviet or Eastern European dissident.”

Almost 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the entertainment industry is still sensitive to charges of Cold War jingoism (though the spread of hipster Buddhism has necessitated the occasional dramatization of China’s occupation of Tibet). But a spate of recent films—none of them produced in Hollywood—is finally providing a more dystopian and accurate picture of communism. Among them: The Singing Revolution, a riveting documentary detailing the little-known story of Estonia’s nonviolent resistance to Soviet occupation; the Oscar-winning German political drama The Lives of Others, a deeply affecting portrait of the Zamyatinian nightmare that was East Germany; and Katyn, a dramatic recapitulation of the mass murder of 20,000 Polish officers shortly after the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact.

Even Hollywood’s strange love affair with the Cuban revolution, recently evidenced by Walter Salles’ saccharine salute to Che Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries, is at long last showing signs of abating. In 2000 the New York painter/director Julian Schnabel memorably upbraided Castro in Before Night Falls, a portrait of the gay writer Reinaldo Arenas, who was imprisoned by the communist government for his aberrant politics and sexuality.

Now, from first-time director Cristina Khuly, comes Shoot Down, a brilliantly rendered and scrupulously even-handed documentary revisiting the 1996 Cuban downing of two civilian planes over international waters. Both were piloted by Miami-based Cuban exiles from the group Brothers to the Rescue, which searches for Cubans fleeing Castro in the Florida Straits.

The attack on the unarmed planes was soon overshadowed by the saga of Elian Gonzales and is now largely forgotten outside Miami. Despite the smokescreen of misinformation presented by Castro and his foreign enablers, the grim facts of the story are rather straightforward. As three rescue planes approached Cuba, the lead plane, piloted by the Brothers to the Rescue founder José Basulto, briefly breached Cuban air space. Officials in Havana, tipped off by a mole in the group’s leadership, scrambled Soviet-made MiG fighter planes to knock the rescuers out of the sky. Basulto managed to escape. When Cuban missiles vaporized the other two aircraft, both were flying over international waters.

It is perhaps unintentional, but Shoot Down reasserts the controversy and complexity of the Clinton years, often obscured in hindsight by the salaciousness of the Lewinsky scandal and the failures of the Bush presidency. From our vantage point, it’s easy to forget that Clinton sanctioned the liberal use of heavily militarized federal agents at Waco and during the seizure of Elian Gonzales from a Florida residence. He also reversed a 30-year-old U.S. policy treating Cuban defectors as political refugees.

It was this change that precipitated Brothers to the Rescue’s shift from search-and-rescue operations in the Florida Straits to direct confrontation with the Cuban regime. Under pressure from Castro, the Clinton administration revised the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, reclassifying those fleeing Cuba as illegal immigrants worthy of repatriation—unless they managed to reach American shores. That spelled the end of Brothers to the Rescue’s previously cordial relationship with U.S. authorities.

Director Khuly, a 37-year-old sculptor, is the niece of shoot-down victim Armando Alejandre Jr. But her documentary strives not to be dismissed as a “Miami exile” film, leading Khuly to explore, then subtly reject, the Castroite perspective. This strenuous attempt at balance can be irksome. One wonders if the inclusion of the Castro hagiographer Saul Landau, who signed one recent article with the exclamation “Viva Fidel!,” adds anything to the picture, other than to act as a layer of insulation against charges of bias. But this is a minor quibble. The family testimony overwhelms Landau’s apologetics.

Billingsley bemoaned the film industry’s lack of interest in what was arguably the 20th century’s greatest tragedy, but this recent crop of films promises, however belatedly, to begin the process of correction. Shoot Down will not by itself redraw the image of Castro as beneficent leader. Michael Moore’s paean to Cuban health care was nominated for an Oscar, after all. But every little bit helps.

Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor of
Reason.

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